James Hillman’s Healing Fiction

Outskirts of a City, from Homelands, 2017

James Hillman’s book Healing Fiction is both dense and a breath of fresh air. On recently rereading the third essay in this book (What Does the Soul Want?), my highlighting became possibly excessive!

So here (highlights of highlights!) I present some quotes from the essay and reflections on what Hillman is saying, on what I think is a very important topic: how can we experience soul in these difficult times, and how does this make life more worth living?

Inarticulation of Desire

Hillman speaks of the fact that we may enter therapy being unable to articulate what it is we want from it. For him, this is important and integral to the work. He talks of the third factor, the endless uncertainty for client and therapist as to what both want from the therapy:

This moment of reflective intervention, this third factor in the therapeutic experience, I attribute to soul.

So soul can appear as a sense of inferiority, because we are inarticulate about our desire:

… we rely so much on positivisms, the positive sciences, the positivities of spiritual teachings, the moral positions of ideologies. We clutch at these bright and rigid straws because the base on which we stand, the soul, is endless and unfathomable.

Active Imagination

Hillman suggests we can go to active imagination to help here, asking dream figures what they want. This requires real listening, rather than attempting to manipulate the dream figure. Hillman speaks of our “miserable inferiority” as actually that place of soul.

Perhaps therapy invites soul, and soul constellates another, different power that is both our inferiority in itself and also that which makes all we have been and are inferior to it.

If we can have such a dialogue, then these are the voices of our images, and:

… as Jung said “image is psyche,” so where else hear what soul wants than in the images that intimately speak to our psychic conditions.


These voices can be thought of as voices of the underworld.

The inferiores are the daimones who inhabit the lower regions – shadow is the psychological term; and we are brought low, humiliated, shamed when these figures speak their wants. This, not so much because they urge dirty-doings, but because we have hidden them away, treated them shamefully, humiliating them by not listening, little caring about the lower reaches of our psychic society.

(inferiore: from latin, īnferus (“low, deep”); daimone: (Greek mythology) A deity or spirit that watches over a person or place.)

So we are taking our “inferiors” seriously, rather than defending against them:

… they show a way of therapy, a method, taken from Jung, of actively being engaged in imagining, and particularly with inferior imagining: images of inferiors and images that make us behave inferiorly – a method quite different from spiritual disciplines that concentrate on higher ideals and goals. Our way, moreover, does not interpret the image but talks with it. It does not ask what the image means but what it wants.

Alfred Adler

In this essay, Hillman now introduces Adler, who wrote of human destiny and how we strive for a sense of superiority to counter our deep sense of inferiority. (It was Adler who coined the term “inferiority complex”.)

As Adler said: (from Alfred Adler, Understanding Human Nature):

When the feeling of inferiority is intensified to the degree that children fear they will never be able to overcome their weakness, the danger arises that in striving for compensation they will not be satisfied with a simple restoration of the balance of power. They will seek to tip the scales in the opposite direction. In such cases the striving for power and dominance may become so exaggerated and intensified that it must be called pathological, and the ordinary relationships of life will never be satisfactory.

And for Hillman, this is the “double curse”:

If there is a primary inferiority in us each and yet the basic human urge is for perfection, how can we recognize our lowness and rise to our heights? Is not this the healing we seek: to be relieved of that double curse in our Western myth – the spirit’s vision of perfection and matter’s fundamental limitation, two archetypal fictions that have determined even the two senses of a “want,” as driving need and as empty lack.

Adler’s idea of organ inferiority is also relevant to the experience of soul. For Adler, we grow around and live from our weak spots, another way of describing the inferior. As Hillman says:

… one’s soul is one’s place of least resistance.

In your symptom is your soul, could be a motto.

The unconscious is the immediate suffering of inadequacy, and we are continually producing unconsciousness by defending against feeling inferior.

The soul is driven by the hierarchical perspective of spirit into regions it considers even more distal and low, the organic body, where the soul makes its presence known as symptoms.

The Hermaphrodite

Further, Hillman raises the idea of the psychic hermaphrodite, revered by Jung as symbol for the mystical marriage, the conjunction of opposites that marks the end of alchemical operations (and hence marks the symbolic goal of analysis or therapy).

The hermaphrodite is that character that is inherently unnatural, deformed, fictional, without singleness of meaning, inferior; yet as keeper of soul, healer. As Hillman says:

psychic health requires remaining within psychic hermaphroditism, because it constellates those feelings of inferiority which prevent literalism. The image of the hermaphrodite keeps the tension.

And in relation to the inferiores:

Having assumed that the soul speaks with the voice of the inferiores, those kept down, below, and behind, as the child, the woman, the ancestor and the dead, the animal, the weak and hurt, the revolting and ugly, the shadows judged and imprisoned, then it will be the task of any psychotherapy to stay in touch with and be moved by these inferiores.

In a sense, we are like the Taoists of psychotherapy, staying with the low, dark, and weak, staying with the inferiority of the discipline given with the lowness, darkness, and weakness of the soul.

For me, this is the value in Hillman’s analysis: if we can re-vision the sense of inferiority into a rich, earthy soul life then we are living the life of the hermaphrodite, the deep and consistent connector to soul.

And this “re-visioning” is literally imaginal – (“image is psyche”) – and this is what constitutes the healing fiction.